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Robbins: What superdelegates are and how they work

Last week, I wrote about the Electoral College, an odd contrivance based on the 12th Amendment to the Constitution. Therein, I posed the question, “What species in God’s green earth is a superdelegate?” 

First off, no capes, swanky lycra uniforms, or catchy emblems are emblazoned on their chests. But superpowers? Well, yeah. Sorta … 

With the first primaries well underway, Super Tuesday (the tidal wave in which Colorado will soon be atumble) on its heels, and the nominating conventions charging like a couple of testosterone-charged bull moose, a peek at this odd genus is in order.

First, a definition 

A superdelegate is a delegate to a political party convention held to nominate a presidential candidate. He or she attends by virtue of being a party official or elected officeholder rather than as a regularly elected delegate.

And here’s the kicker; superdelegates are not obligated to vote for a particular candidate.

Say what? What about this “representative democracy” business?

Before we march on, two quick notes. 

Like all other species, superdelegates are subject to the proposition of survival of the fittest and, apparently, evolve. As an outfall of the 2016 party infight between Democratic eventual nominee Hilary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, superdelegates have morphed. 

In 2020, compared to 2016, the rules and shape of superdelegates have changed. And here’s the other thing; the niche they fill is only in the hospitable climes of the Democratic party. At least in theory, Republicans don’t have ‘em.

But a quick parenthetical is in order …  Regarding the Grand Old Party, it is more a matter of not giving superdelegates a name than them not existing. Think of it as sort of like Sasquatch in reverse. With Bigfoot, the beast has a name but can’t be found. Among the Republicans, the beast exists but lacks taxonomic identification.

So, in name at least, superdelegates are not involved in the Republican Party nomination process. In reality, however, there are, in fact, delegates to the Republican National Convention who are seated automatically. What is different than the Dems, however, which we will consider in a sec, below, is that among the GOP, these “phantom” delegates are limited to three per state — the state chairman and two district-level committee members. Also unlike the Dems, Republican Party superdelegates are obliged to vote for their state’s popular vote winner under the rules of the party branch to which they belong.

So what about the Dems?

Under the new rules for 2020, superdelegates will still be automatic delegates to the convention but they will not have a vote on the first presidential ballot if the convention remains contested Even though the field is thinning as quickly as a balding man’s pate, considering the sheer number of Democrats still in the running and what appears to be the considerable bankrolls of at least several of them, that remains a distinct — if not likely — possibility. Stated simply, none of the candidates may come to the party with enough delegates to initially push them over the finish line of nomination.

Although superdelegates would get to vote on any subsequent rounds of voting, it is worth noting that the Democratic nomination has been settled on the first ballot of every convention since the 1970s when the modern system of primaries and caucuses was established. Where this lands is that superdelegates, although welcome to attend the ball with all their raucous and outrageous regalia, will only be asked to dance if there is a hiccough and the nomination is contested.

To put a finer point on all of this, a superdelegate is an unpledged delegate to the Democratic National Convention who is seated automatically and chooses for him/herself for whom s/he will vote. This contrasts with pledged delegates who are selected based on the outcome of the party primaries and caucuses in each state.

Superdelegates make up slightly less than 15% of all convention delegates and include elected officials and party activists and officials. For the Dems, superdelegates fall into one of four categories and are more formally described as “unpledged party leader and elected official delegates.” The four tranches include: key party members; Democratic governors; Democratic members of Congress; and distinguished party leaders (consisting of current and former presidents, vice presidents, congressional leaders, and Democratic National Committee chairs).

While the role of superdelegates has been reduced, they may still be called upon to cast their votes if the convention becomes brokered — a rising possibility in this crowded and at times contentious field.

If I have neglected this, superdelegates have not a thing to do with the Constitution. Instead, this is all about party rules, hoopla and procedure.

I come back often to the apocryphal curse, sometimes attributed to the Chinese and other times to the Chaldeans; “may you live in interesting times.” 

Apocryphal or not … indeed.


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